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the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 4

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 2


(2) If a soul shall sin.—It will be seen that whilst the three previous kinds of offerings, viz., the burnt offering (Leviticus 1:1-17), the meat offering (Leviticus 2:1-16), and the peace offering (Leviticus 3:1-17), are spoken of as familiarly known and practised among the Israelites before the giving of the Law, the sin offering and the trespass offering are here introduced as a new injunction. We have here no more the voluntary formula, “If any man of you bring,” &c. (Leviticus 1:2; Leviticus 2:1; Leviticus 3:1), as you are in the habit of bringing; but “if a soul shall sin . . . let him bring for his sin offering a young bullock,” &c.

Through ignorance.—He did it inadvertently, and at the time of its committal did not know that it was a transgression; but recognised it as a sin after he did it. (Comp. Leviticus 4:13; Leviticus 4:22; Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:18; Leviticus 22:14.) According to the practice which obtained during the second Temple, the sin here spoken of, for which the sin offering was brought, was (1) a sin committed through ignorance, or involuntarily, as opposed to a sin committed with a set purpose (comp. Numbers 15:30); (2) a sin against a negative command; (3) a sin consisted in acts, not in words or thoughts, as is deduced from the expression “and shall do against any of them;” and (4) of acts of such a nature, that if committed intentionally they would subject the sinner to the awful punishment of excision. (See Numbers 15:29-30.)

Verse 3

(3) The priest that is anointed.—To illustrate this law, the conduct of the high priest is adduced as the first instance, to show when and how this exalted functionary is to bring the sin offering in question. By this the Levitical law indicates that even the chief of the priesthood was but a frail being like the rest of the people, and was exposed to the same infirmities as the laity, thus precluding the assumption of spiritual superiority. Hence the remark of the Apostle, “the law made those high priests who had infirmity, and who needed daily to offer up sacrifices, first for their own sins, and then for the people’s; but our high priest, Christ Jesus, was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (Hebrews 7:27-28). The phrase “the priest that is anointed” for “the high priest” is restricted to this book, where it occurs four times (Leviticus 4:3; Leviticus 4:5; Leviticus 4:16; Leviticus 6:15 in Heb.; 22 in the English). “The great priest,” or high priest, is the appellation used in the other portions of the Pentateuch (Leviticus 21:10; Numbers 35:25; Numbers 35:28), and in Joshua (Joshua 20:6); whilst in the later books of the Old Testament this functionary is called chief priest (2 Kings 25:18; 2 Chronicles 19:11; 2 Chronicles 24:11; 2 Chronicles 26:20; 2 Chronicles 31:10; Ezra 7:5). He is called “the anointed priest,” because, like Aaron, he alone was anointed when he succeeded to the high office, whilst the ordinary priests were simply consecrated. Their anointing descended with them to all futurity by virtue of being the descendants of Aaron. (See Leviticus 8:12.)

According to the sin of the people.—That is, he having in ignorance committed the same sin as the common people, to which he is as liable as they. From the phrase “against any commandments of the Lord” in the preceding verse, as well as from Leviticus 10:6; Leviticus 21:10-15, it is evident that the sin of ignorance here alluded to does not refer to the inadvertent neglect of his official duty, which devolves upon the high priest as the spiritual head of the people, but to any offence whatsoever ignorantly committed. According to the marginal reading, to make the people guilty, or more literally, to the guilt of the people, which is equally admissible, the meaning of the passage is, that he by committing a sin causes the people to transgress, inasmuch as his example is followed by them; or that, in virtue of the intimate connection which subsisted between the representative of the nation and the people, the sin of the one was the sin of the other. (Comp. Leviticus 10:6; 1 Chronicles 21:3.)

A young bullock.—Literally, a steer, the son of a bull. The sacrificial rules which obtained at the time of Christ minutely defined the respective ages of the bullock: the steer, the son of a bull, and the calf. The bullock or ox which was brought as a sacrifice had to be three years old: “the steer the son of a bull” rendered in the passage before us, and in the Authorised Version generally, by “a young bullock” (Exodus 29:1; Leviticus 4:14; Leviticus 16:3; Leviticus 23:8, &c.), had to be two years old; whilst the calf had to be of the first year.

Verse 4

(4) Unto the door of the Tabernacle of the Congregation.—Better, unto the entrance of the tent of meeting. (See Leviticus 1:3.) The regulations about the bringing of the sin offering up to the sprinkling of the blood are the same as those about the other sacrifices.

Verse 5

(5) And bring it.—That is, after the high priest had received the blood into the bowl (see Leviticus 1:5), he is to bring it out of the court where the victim was slain into the tent of meeting.

Verse 6

(6) And the priest shall dip his finger.—The different treatment of the blood is here to be noticed. Whilst in the case of the other sacrifices the priest threw the blood upon the walls of the altar of burnt offering (see Leviticus 1:5), in the sin offering before us the high priest is first of all to dip his finger seven times in the blood, and sprinkle it before the Lord. The finger, according to the rules which obtained during the second Temple, was that of the right hand, as the blood was always taken and sprinkled with the right hand. Seven, being a complete number, is used for the perfect finishing of a work. Hence the seven days of creation (Genesis 2:2-3); seven branches were in the golden candlestick (Exodus 25:37; Exodus 37:23); seven times the blood was sprinkled on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:14); seven times was the oil sprinkled upon the altar when it was consecrated (Leviticus 8:11); seven days were required for consecrating the priests (Leviticus 8:35); seven days were necessary for purifying the defiled (Leviticus 12:2; Numbers 19:19); seven times Naaman washed in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:10; 2 Kings 5:14); seven days Jericho was besieged, and seven priests with seven trumpets blew when the walls fell down (Joshua 6:0); the lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God (Revelation 5:6); seven seals are on God’s book (Revelation 1:5), &c.

Before the Lord.—As the Lord was enthroned on the mercy-seat between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22) in the holy of holies, the phrase “before the Lord” is. used for the place in front of the holy of holies, where the altar of incense, the shewbread, and the golden candlestick stood (Exodus 27:21; Exodus 28:35; Exodus 30:8; Exodus 34:34, &c.), and towards which the blood was sprinkled.

Before the vail of the sanctuary.—This phrase is simply explanatory of the former phrase. As the vail separated the holy of holies, where the shechinah dwelt, from the holy place, the words are simply used as another expression for “before the Lord.” This clause has, however, been variously interpreted from time immemorial. As before is not in the original. but is supplied in the translation, some have maintained that the vail itself was sprinkled; whilst others, who, with the Authorised Version, regard the whole phrase to mean “before the vail,” declare that the blood was sprinkled on the floor of the sanctuary in front of the vail.

Verse 7

(7) And the priest shall put.—That is, the high priest. With the finger thus dipped into it, he is to put some of the blood on each of the four horns of the golden altar on which the incense was offered.

This process, too, was peculiar to the sacrifice of the sin offering. The altar was placed in the holy place before the vail which separated off the holy of holies (Exodus 30:1-6). According to the practice which obtained in the time of Christ, the priest began by putting the blood first on the north-east horn, then on the north-west, then on the south-west, and, lastly, on the south-east horn. He dipped his finger in the blood of the bowl at the sprinkling of each horn, and wiped his finger on the edge of the bowl between the separate sprinklings, as the blood which remained on his finger from one horn was not deemed fit to be put on the other.

And shall pour all the blood.—That is, all the remaining blood. The bulk of the blood which remained, after expending the small quantity on the horns of the incense altar inside the sanctuary, the priest poured out at the bottom of the altar of burnt offering, which stood outside the holy place. At the time of the second Temple, there were at the southwest horn of this altar two holes, like two nostrils, through which the blood ran into a drain conveying it into the brook of Kedron.

Verse 8

(8) And he shall take off from it all the fat.—That is, the best or choicest part. (See Leviticus 3:3.) At the time of Christ the sin offering was cut open, the fat and inwards were taken out, put into a vessel, salted, stewed on the fire, and burnt upon the altar as a sweet savour unto the Lord.

Verse 9

(9) And the two kidneys.—The regulations prescribed in these two verses are the same as those in connection with the peace offering in Leviticus 3:4-5.

Verse 11

(11) And the skin of the bullock.—Unlike other burnt offerings, the skins of which were taken off, and became the perquisite of the priests (Leviticus 7:8), this sin offering was not flayed at all, but was cut to pieces with its skin.

Verse 12

(12) Even the whole bullock shall he carry forth.—This does not mean that the high priest himself had to carry the whole bullock all that distance, but in accordance with the idiom so common in Hebrew, where the singular is used for the plural, or the indefinite or impersonal form, denotes that those who assisted in doing the rough work of the altar shall carry the victim. Hence the ancient Greek Version (LXX.) and the Samaritan rightly render it by “and they shall carry,” in the plural: i.e., the whole bullock shall be carried forth. In Leviticus 4:24 of this very chapter the Authorised Version properly translates the same idiom into “in the place where they kill the burnt offering,” though the verb, as in the verse before us, is in the singular. (See also Leviticus 4:14.)

Without the camp.—During the time of the second Temple there were three places for burning: one place was in the court of the sanctuary, where they burnt the sacrifices which were unfit and rejected; the second place was in the mountain of the house called Birah, where were buried those sacrifices which met with an accident after they had been carried out of the court; and the third place was without Jerusalem, called the place of ashes. It is this place to which the Apostle refers when he says, “for the bodies of those beast whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered without the gate(Hebrews 13:11-12).

And burn him on the wood with fire.—Whilst special wood was required for the burning of those victims which were consumed in the court of the sanctuary (see Leviticus 1:7), the sacrifices which were taken outside the city could be burnt with any wood, or even straw or stubble. All that was insisted on was that it should be burned with fire, as the text before us has it, but not with cinder, coals, or lime.

Verse 13

(13) And if the whole congregation.—As the whole Church, in its corporate body, is no more exempt from human frailty than its highest spiritual chief, the law now prescribes the sin offering for the congregation (Leviticus 4:13-21). The case here assumed is that of the whole congregation having ignorantly committed some act which at the time of its committal they believed to be lawful, but which they afterwards discovered to be sinful. The two terms respectively rendered in the Authorised Version by congregation and assembly denote the same body of people, and are used interchangeably, so that the same congregation or assembly which inadvertently committed the sin afterwards recognised it. (Comp. Numbers 15:24-26.) An instance of such a national and congregational sin is recorded in 1 Samuel 14:32, where we are told that the Israelites, after smiting the Philistines, “flew upon the spoil, and took sheep, and oxen, and calves, and slew them on the ground, and the people did eat them with the blood.” According to the ancient interpretation, however, which obtained at the time of Christ, “the whole congregation of Israel” and “the assembly” here spoken of denote the great Sanhedrin, the representatives of the people, who, through error, might proclaim a decree calculated to mislead the nation, thus accounting for the apparent discrepancy between this passage and Numbers 15:22-26.

Verse 14

(14) Offer a young bullock.—The same sacrifice which is prescribed for the sin of the high priest (comp. Leviticus 4:3), and though not expressed here, it must be without blemish.

And bring him before the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, before the tent of meeting. (See Leviticus 1:3.) This no more means that the whole congregation or the thousands of Israelites are all to lay hold of the victim, and carry it to the appointed place of slaughter, than the phrase in Leviticus 4:12 signifies that the high priest is himself to carry the bullock. It is the regular Hebrew idiom, which denotes that the people are to cause the sacrifice to be carried. We should have deemed it superfluous to explain this well-known mode of expression had it not been that mistaken arguments have been deduced from it.

Verse 15

(15) And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands.—As the whole congregation could not lay their hands on the victim, their representatives had to perform this act. (See Leviticus 4:4.) But as the elders also were far too many to do it, since they were seventy in number, it was ordained during the second Temple that three of their members should lay their hands upon the sacrifice. Besides this sin offering there was only one other congregational offering upon which there was this laying of hands: i.e., the scape-goat (Leviticus 16:21).

Verses 16-21

(16-21) The rest of the regulations are exactly the same as those prescribed in the sin offering for the high priest himself in Leviticus 4:5-12.

Verse 22

(22) When a ruler hath sinned.—The third instance adduced is that of a ruler sinning inadvertently (Leviticus 4:22-26). As the word here translated “ruler” is used for a king (1 Kings 11:34; Ezekiel 34:24; Ezekiel 46:2), the head of a tribe (Numbers 1:4-16) or of the division of a tribe (Numbers 34:18), opinions differ as to the exact position of the personage here meant. Now, in comparing the phrase used with regard to the sin of ignorance in the case of the high priest, the congregation, and any one of the people, it will be seen that in all the three instances it is simply described as a sin “against any commandments of the Lord”(comp. Leviticus 4:2; Leviticus 4:13; Leviticus 4:27), whereas in the case of the ruler, we have the exceptional phrase, “against any of the commandments of the Lord his God.” Hence the interpretation obtained during the second Temple that the addition of the phrase his God, which shows a peculiar relationship to his God, denotes here one over whom God alone is exalted—the sovereign who is only responsible to his God.

And is guilty.—Rather, and acknowledges his guilt, as the Authorised Version rightly translates it in Hosea 5:15. (Comp. also Zechariah 11:5.) This sense is not only required by the disjunctive particle or, with which the next verse begins, but by the fact that the declaration in the present rendering, “When men sin they are guilty,” is a truism. The sinner is guilty whether he sins advertently or inadvertently. The case here supposed is that the prince had himself come to the knowledge that what he had done was a sin, and had acknowledged it as such.

Verse 23

(23) Or if his sin.—That is, if on his failing to see it himself, his sin is shown to him by another person.

A kid of the goats.—The expression here used (sâêr) properly denotes the rough, shaggy-haired he goat, and is distinguished from athud (literally, ready, vigorous), which occurs in conjunction with it (Numbers 7:16-17; Numbers 7:22-23), and which is also translated goat in point of age. The sâêr, or the shaggy or longer haired he-goat, here used is the older buck of the goat, whose hair has become long with age; whilst the athud is the same animal, younger and more vigorous. Hence the former was never killed for food, or used for burnt or thank offerings at the festivals (Leviticus 16:9; Leviticus 16:15; Leviticus 23:19; Numbers 28:15; Numbers 28:22; Numbers 28:30; Numbers 29:5; Numbers 29:11; Numbers 29:16), and at the consecration of the priests and sanctuary (Leviticus 9:3; Leviticus 9:15; Leviticus 10:16), whilst the latter was killed for food (Deuteronomy 32:14; Jeremiah 51:40), and hence, like the bull, the ram, and the lamb, was regularly presented as burnt and thank offerings (Numbers 7:17; Numbers 7:23; Numbers 7:29, &c.; Isaiah 1:11; Isaiah 34:6; Ezekiel 39:18; Pss. 1. 9, 13, Ixvi. 15). It will be seen that the first difference in the sin offering of a prince is that he is to bring a longhaired he-goat, and not a bull.

Verse 24

(24) And kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offering.—See Leviticus 1:5.

Verse 25

(25) And the priest shall take.—Here, again, the difference in the ritual is to be observed. In case of his own sin offering and in that of the congregation, the high priest himself performed the principal ceremony (Leviticus 4:5-17), whilst at the sin offering of the prince the common priest officiated. The blood of the victim was not sprinkled before the vail of the Holy of Holies, nor on the incense altar which stood in the Holy, but on the brazen altar which was placed outside in the court.

Verse 27

(27) And if any one of the common people.—The fourth instance adduced (Leviticus 4:27-35) is that of any one of the people of the land, as this phrase is rendered in Leviticus 20:2; Leviticus 20:4; 2 Kings 9:18-19; 2 Kings 16:15. That is, any member of the congregation, whether he be a private Israelite, ordinary priest, or Levite, in contradistinction to the afore-mentioned high priest and ruler.

And be guilty.—Rather, and acknowledges his guilt. (See Leviticus 4:22.)

Verse 28

(28) Or if his sin . . . come to his knowledge.—That is, is shown to him by another person. (See Leviticus 4:23.)

A kid of the goats.—Better, a shaggy-haired she-goat without blemish. The expression is feminine in the Hebrew. The female was of less value than the male, and was therefore more suitable to the circumstances of the ordinary people.

Verses 29-31

(29-31) And he shall lay.—The ritual prescribed in these verses is the same as that ordained in the case of the sin offering of the prince (Leviticus 4:24-26). In Leviticus 4:31, however, the phrase, “for a sweet savour unto the Lord,” is added to the burning of the fat pieces of the victim, which does not occur at the sin offering of the high priest, the congregation, or the prince (comp. Leviticus 4:10; Leviticus 4:19; Leviticus 4:26), but is used at burnt offerings (Leviticus 1:9; Leviticus 1:13) and peace offerings (Leviticus 3:5; Leviticus 3:16). It is supposed by some that these words are designedly used in connection with the least costly sin offering, to indicate that the humblest gift of the humblest person, if sincerely offered, is as acceptable to God as the most costly offering of the most exalted in the land.

Verse 32

(32) And if he bring a lamb.—Better, a sheep. (See Leviticus 3:7.) Those who were unable to bring a goat might offer a female sheep as the less valuable animal, provided it was without blemish. Though the ritual is the same as with the goat (see Leviticus 4:29-31), yet the sheep is treated separately, because of the fat tail, which had to be burned. (See Leviticus 3:12.)

Verse 35

(35) According to the offerings made by fire.—Better, upon the offerings made by fire. As the daily morning sacrifice was offered first every day, and as it continued burning on the altar all the forenoon, no fresh or special fire was to be kindled for it, but it was to be upon the fire sacrifices which had already been placed there before. (See Leviticus 3:5; Leviticus 5:12.) The flesh of the sin offering, both for the prince and for the individual members of the community, was not burnt without the camp, as was the case with the flesh of the sacrifice for the high priest and for the whole congregation, but was the perquisite of the priests, and was eaten by them (Leviticus 6:26-30). This is in harmony with the law. The sinner who brought the sin offering could not partake of it. Hence the priest was not permitted to eat of the flesh of the sin offering which he offered for himself, or of the flesh of the congregational sin offering, because he was a member of the congregation.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Leviticus 4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/leviticus-4.html. 1905.
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